Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Self-Destruction

One of the best things about the growth of the Substack newsletter format and one of the reasons I hope for its longterm success is the way certain writers that have previously leaned heavily on the book format now produce new content in between book releases. The shorter format gives a reader a chance to appreciate something important that they have to say that might not by itself be long enough for a book but is still good to grapple with.

Recently, for example, music and culture writer Ted Gioia put out an article on his The Honest Broker Substack about Columbia Records' purge of its old-school jazz roster in the early 1970's. For someone like me who is much more of a skimmer of jazz music than a deep-sea diver like Gioia, it's a great piece of history of the music to learn. But it probably would make a very thin -- or very padded-out -- book. This way, it need not be either. For the writers, of course, it turns out better because instead of a blog post that pays nothing they can produce content that people might subscribe to and pay them for. And no, I'm not considering a Substack model. I don't need confirmation of what this blog is worth in real monetary terms; my own feelings of inadequacy confirm it just fine, thanks.

I haven't yet subscribed to any of these newsletters, although I'm considering a few. My gut tells me that the company is probably trying to work out a system whereby you could bundle some of your preferred writers at a slight discount and I'm waiting to see. I'm also waiting to see newspaper publishers see that happen and kick themselves for not coming up with that model of online content before they collapsed. But as Gioia's article makes clear, sometimes large media corporations are not nimble thinkers and they have a gift for making the wrong changes.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Definitions

Writing at National Review, Andy McCarthy unpacks what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 from a legal perspective and discusses the various labels that are applied to it. The piece is detailed and should be read in its entirety; I don't know if it's behind the paywall or not but if it is bookmark it and come back later.

In short, McCarthy says that the folks who stormed the Capitol building, made it inside and made themselves at home and a nuisance for several hours are guilty of rioting -- but not of insurrection or treason. And, he says, despite the words used by the Attorney General, the Justice Department agrees -- because it's going to ask for one of the lead ruffians to get about a 3-year or so sentence for pleading guilty. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, points out that if someone really tries to overthrow the government, their term behind bars ought not to be shorter than the President's term in the White House.

I appreciated the analysis because it helped me put some of my own ideas in a proper framework. The thought that the riots qualified as an "insurrection" is ludicrous. They were a big problem, caused partly by inadequate preparation on the part of law enforcement and partly by then-President Trump hemming and hawing about telling the same people he had just stirred up to simmer down and go home. But an insurrection? How? Although one particular bit of government business -- the certification and recording of the electoral votes from the November 2020 election -- was delayed, it was not blocked and no other government function was impeded. Some Capitol Police where assaulted and a female protestor was shot and killed -- these are awful things, but they are not an insurrection against the United States.

It's reported as overheard in more than one news story, but not verified, that one of the protestors who reached the U.S. Senate chamber said something like, "Well, we're here. Might as well form a government." I'd say that's usually the kind of thing loony enough it causes roofs to cave in, but it's not like that room hasn't heard worse before.

There was literally zero chance that the people in the Senate and House chambers and those roaming the rest of the Capitol could "form" any government that would be accepted by existing governmental officials, bureacrats, elected officeholders, law enforcement personnel, military service folks, and so on. If that statement was really uttered aloud, did the speaker really think that Chuck Schumer would have said, "Well, we'd like to go back inside and sit in our comfy chairs and argue with each other, but there's a guy with buffalo horns on his head who took mine and some dude waving a flag with Trump on Mount Rushmore took McConnell's."

In the immediate aftermath my desire was to have this event investigated, proper and appropriate charges filed, remedial steps taken to prevent a repeat and then to have everyone shut up. Not because I'd like it swept under the rug but because between a Justice Department that shouts, "Treason!" but sentences, "Trespassing" and supporters of the former president who say, "They were just taking selfies and got a little excited," there's not anybody saying anything worth listening to anyway.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Clarity

A pop-culture website that I often read had an item in which the writer worried that the trailer to the upcoming Halloween Kills reveals too much about the movie. Which is a sequel to 2018's sequel to the original 1978 movie that doesn't take into account any of the subsequent sequels and also ignores the rebooted version from "musician" "filmmaker" Rob Zombie and its sequel.

Anyway, the writer thinks the trailer shows too many of the kills by lead psychopath Michael Myers, whose brutal string of slayings is what passes for a plot in all of these movies -- except, of course, for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which involved cursed Halloween masks.

Halloween (2018) retconned all movies subsequent to the original out of existence, including the original sequel and both alternate timelines that came from it. It "ended" with the unstoppable killer Myers burning in Laurie Strode's (Jamie Lee Curtis) basement. But of course someone who's almost as dumb as the people making these movies unwittingly helps Michael escape to continue killing, and as mentioned above the article worries that too many kills are given away, ruining the movie. When the only appeal of your movie is the supposed inventiveness with which the villain snuffs out human life, you can be certain that you have made a movie that, if karma is real, you will one day be required to answer for.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Browsing

Some unexpected open time this afternoon gave me the chance to follow links around the internet and uncover some new sites worth a look. One was the new site operated by the recently retired Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass. Kass took the buyout offered by the paper's new ownership but decided to begin his own with various kinds of contributions. I appreciated it enough to add it to the links list. As I mentioned in a discussion, Kass struck me as one of the last remaining "local big city columnists," which means a good deal of his writing is probably going to keep centering on Chicago. But that has some nostalgia value for me, and it'll be worth checking out now and again to see what he's turned his eye towards.

Another site is the forum and web community Less Wrong, which aims to promote rationalism in thinking, discussion, society and policy decisions. I toyed with adding it or even joining, but I'll press pause for now. Many of the posts looked interesting and I'm sure I'll read a few, but the overall tone of the community -- especially in Ye Olde Comments Section -- seemed about as arch and pleased with itself as anything on Daily Kos or one of the Breitbart sites.

I'll need some more convincing on the site, but the idea is a pretty good one. As far as one can manage, if I wake up tomorrow and act, think or judge less wrongly than I did today, then I have improved my life and, I hope, the lives of those around me. The "about" page gives the idea behind the title as drawn from a short poem by Danish scientist Piet Hein:

The road to wisdom?
-- Well, it's plain
and simple to express:
Err
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less.

Hein gave this genre of short aphorism the name "Gruk," (pronounced "grook"). That brand could maybe stand some reworking.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Be Vewy Vewy Quiet...

Despite the clear signs of intelligence displayed by many animals that indicate they are not nearly as far away from humans on the cognitive scale than some folks have liked to think, I still believe that there are aspects of intelligent life that we hairless primates possess that other critters do not.


 

As this gray whale demonstrates, comedic timing appears to be one of the ones that's shared. The mother whale popped up behind this group of watchers while their attention was fixed on her baby. Had she decided to go full funny and tapped the guy in the back and asked, "What are you guys looking at?" she could not have done better. Of course, at 40 tons with a flipper 6 to 10 feet long, "tapping" might involve sinking the boat.

The story at Neatorama points out that the behavior, called "spy-hopping," is not that uncommon and happens when the whale spots something it wants to look at more closely.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Always Fitting

The beginning of summer is also, of course, the day with the most sunlight of any during the year. Even though this year it's on Monday, it seems like this song sums it up best.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Scramblings

-- According to this item at CBR, the creators of Amazon's version of Garth Ennis's sorry blood-and-sex superhero deconstruction The Boys are being bothered by all of the people asking them when Season 3 of the show will debut. I'll take a Gen-X neener-neener moment to point out that we always knew when the new seasons of TV shows started: In the fall. But my real note is how the showrunners responded, by telling fans that every time someone asks when Season 3 starts they push the start back one day. I unsure of my next step: To happily pay no attention to the show and continue not asking when it starts, or take the tweet seriously and ask at least once a day from now until I die.

-- In a not "Okay fine" development, actor Frank Bonner passed on Wednesday at the age of 79. Bonner was best known as the hapless ad salesman for the mythical Cincinnati radio station WKRP on the television show of that name and he would frequently respond to situations well and foul with the aforementioned two-word statement. His signature feature was his endless wardrobe of the loudest suits and ties the 1970s could offer, and he assisted Arthur Carlson's "Turkey Drop" from the helicopter, shoving turkeys into the air even though they could not fly.

-- Cultural studies have a hard time drawing the lines between the so-called generations that they study. The basic names and major characteristics are clearly known: The Greatest Generation saved the world from Hitler and Tojo, but then brought their average waaaay down by creating the Baby Boomers. Millennials are much maligned as snowflakes unable to handle reality, when in truth that's a better description of Gen Z. And Gen-X, mentioned above, would be happy to be left out of all this anyway. But when did these generations start and end? While it's easy to set the arrival of the Boomers as beginning about nine months or so after V-E Day in 1945, when did they finish? Some writers use a 20-year frame, ending the Boomers at 1960 and beginning the X'ers at 1961. Some keep the duration but extend it to a more logical finish date and begin X'ers in 1965. Since that last one sorts your humble correspondent with the Boomers he rejects it utterly, buries it upside down and salts the earth over its cursed coffin. Others use a number of shared cultural experiences and also consider the generation of the parents having the children, but that involves work and generational theorists hate work when stereotyping shorthand will do.

Blogger Brian Noggle has come up with a much simpler and, I think, potentially more useful metric: Which actor do people picture when they hear the name "Spider-Man?" Boomers and some older X'ers will remember television's Nicholas Hammond (and some Adam West-quality wall-climbing sequences). The main group of X'ers is likely to recall Tobey McGuire (and Kirsten Dunst looking particularly lovely). Millennials and Gen Z will probably think of Tom Holland (and their Gen-X dads will gaze fondly upon Marisa Tomei as a whole new kind of Aunt May). Noggle suggests, and I concur, that if the name "Spider-Man" brings to your mind Andrew Garfield you may very well be one of Vlad Putin's sleeper agents, awaiting your chance to destroy America from within while cackling maniacally over the ruins of our weak Western civilization. I may have dressed that last sentence up a little bit.

I think he's on to something, though, and recommend he submit it to a university cultural studies department forthwith.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Long View

The interesting thing to me about this Physics World story is not how an experiment might have found some clues to how much a muon wobbles (Friar answer: Depends on the vodka), or about the problems observational bias can cause when evaluating an experiment.

 It's that this hunt has been going for about 60 years and still isn't quite where it wants to wind up. That's some determination.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Quiet Man, Tom Wood

Author Tom Wood is wrestling with the difficulties of making an amoral anti-hero the protagonist of a book series. On the one hand, he can't allow too much character development unless he's ready to wind up the series and start on something new. When the series has been successful, as has his "Victor the Assassin" novels, the publishing industry is not always happy with that unproven new ground.


But on the flip side, he has to have some movement for his lead, or else every story turns into another couple hundred pages of Victor running surveillance detection routes, demonstrating the kind of paranoia you'd probably need if you were an international assassin and killing a half-dozen or more people either between him and his target or between him and his getaway. The average reader can't really connect with an anti-hero protagonist who remains amoral throughout a series. Donald Westlake wrote 16 Parker novels as Richard Stark up through 1974, with his pseudonym outselling his actual name. But then he hit a spell when he had little to say with the character and the next new Parker novel didn't show up until 1997.

Wood has dipped a toe in Victor's "good side" before, such as in Better off Dead/ where he tries to protect an old colleague's daughter, or A Time to Die, when he employs his skills against an evil man in order to remove him from the world and not just to get paid. In both cases he's violent and lethal, though his ultimate goal is a little less tarnished than usual. But Wood always lurches back, either unable or unwilling to put any consistency into a real arc of character growth. His books aren't any less repetitive than, say, Lee Child's, but Jack Reacher can keep readers coming back because his goal, besides being left alone, is to put the bad guys down. After awhile, it's hard to root for a lead character whose goal is the death of people he doesn't know so he can get paid for it -- and who's willing to kill any random person who might lead to him being caught.

A Quiet Man does dig more into Victor's past than Wood has ever done before and makes a bold early move that helps us focus more on Victor as a person than as a killing automaton. The driving element of the narrative doesn't really relate to his current assignment -- in his cover identity he is stirred by meeting a young special-needs child and makes a promise to the boy and his mother. When they vanish he wants to find them, both to assure himself that they are OK and to fulfill his promise. His ruthless adherence to his profession's best practices cross purpose with his equally fervent drive to keep his word and, for some reason he can't understand, he chooses keeping his word despite the potentially fatal consequences.

Wood drizzles the biographical sprinkles into the story with a light touch, and solidly connects them to actions Victor subsequently takes. Victor's somewhat loftier goal doesn't lessen his own frigid lethality and almost sociopathically violent tactics.

Unfortunately we have to go the long way to get to our resolution with some sidetracks that are clearly filler. A Quiet Man isn't really more than a novella in disguise as a full novel, as Wood even deploys the old standby of starting the action in media res before flashing back a few days to tell us why everyone's where they are and what they're doing, in order to be able to repeat a sequence and lengthen the page count. A set piece with the mobsters who hired him also adds page count more than anything else.

A Quiet Man was a welcome comeback after a three-year hiatus in the series, but we'll have to wait to see if Wood solves his seesaw problem between making Victor merely bad and making him worse than bad, and to see if he has some more fully-developed stories awaiting release from his keyboard.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Off With Its Icing!

When you're the Queen of England, and you're in England and you think you'd like to cut a cake with a sword, then you get to.

The best part of the video is when someone off-camera tells Her Majesty that there's a knife she can use, she informs her, "I know there is." Go back four or five hundred years, she might have used the sword on her after she was finished with the cake.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

It's Back!

Scanning through Physics World for the occasional article that I can understand, I found my favorite exotic state of matter showing up again! Yep, good old quark-gluon plasma gets some play in a piece that talks about how, when it exists, it flows like water.

Quark-gluon plasma!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

For a Season

I have a love-hate relationship with the municipal pool next to the city fitness center where I walk on the treadmill. Now, in the summer, it's brimful of life, color and noise. Whether there are only a half-dozen kids or forty, it feels crammed end-to-end with people, mostly kids, enjoying one of summer's greatest pleasures.

It's only open about eight weeks a year, though, and so the rest of the time it's empty and flat, covered up in winter months with a gray tarp that's all the more dull when compared with the brief season of vitality. 

But it's open now, so may it bloom and bloom and bloom.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Gospel Comes With a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield

It should be no surprise that Rosaria Butterfield sees hospitality as a key component of Christian witness: Without others demonstrating it towards her, then it's possible she might not have explored and come to faith until much later in life, if at all. She outlined that journey in an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In 2018's The Gospel Comes with a House Key,, Butterfield enlarges on the ministry and lifestyle of Christian hospitality that grew from her own early experiences.

In House Key's ten chapters, Butterfield mixes slices from her own conversion testimony with those from life as a clergy couple and family the way she and her husband decided to live it. A key element was the decision to be actively open to interacting with the lives of other people they might encounter -- families at church as well as neighbors on their street. As Butterfield describes it, other decisions about family life flowed from that one. If they were going to be ready to host people breaking bread together as believers, then they would need to set a household budget that had room for the food expenses involved. Their readiness to give freely to those in need meant that they had to be ready to alter their own lives and handle the sudden absence of, say, their second car, because they have given it to a family without one.

House Key also offers some of the results of this chosen lifestyle. Butterfield describes how support from their friends and neighbors following a break-in and robbery helped them move past the sense of violation and nagging fear the crime produced. Her family's insistence on reaching out to the strangely-acting man across the street and his live-in girlfriend didn't stop the pair from being arrested for making and dealing meth -- but it did mean that they could continue to correspond while the pair were in prison and offer them encouragement and guidance in trying to transform their lives.

The book overall has a loose, chatting-in-the-living-room quality that helps make it feel real but at the same time leaves a lot of gaps. Butterfield obviously believes there's a connection between the New Testament-outlined protocol for church discipline and the hospitality ministry she helps her family practice, but she doesn't connect it all as well as she might and leaves a lot of information on the table. The level of hospitality for which Butterfield advocates strikes a lot deeper than most Christians would consider and so it could use a little less storytelling and a little more explanation.

Perhaps Butterfield intended readers to discuss the ideas she presents in groups and hammer out a consensus understanding, instead of relaying more concrete definitions. And there is probably enough material to make that kind of discussion possible -- but it's a little too haphazardly presented to make it as likely as she might have wished or envisioned.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Omission

I don’t think that President Joe Biden is a secret socialist or a dementia-riddled puppet mouthing whatever Kamala Harris wants him to say.

But I do think that his press office and chief of staff have served him poorly by omitting any reference to the anniversary of D-Day in official communications. When people accuse you of thinking mor about your country’s faults than its successes, it’s a good idea to not hand them ammunition.

So, for reference, this is what a President says about the day the Allies started to reclaim Europe.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

The Wrecker, Clive Cussler and Jack DuBrul

The Wrecker, the late Clive Cussler's opening tale of adventure featuring early 20th-century detective Isaac Bell, has the distinction of being the last book that Cussler wrote without a co-author. Justin Scott took that role with the second book of the series and held it until 2019's The Titanic Secret, when Jack DuBrul returned to the Cussler bullpen and took over the Isaac Bell duties. DuBrul had previously worked with Cussler on "The Oregon Files" series.

By being set nearly a century earlier than his other books, the Bell series often proved to be more interesting than some of the other Cussler books, which sometimes took on a cookie-cutter quality and rehashed older bits and concepts. Scott mostly kept that interest, although he managed to lay some duds before the audience as well. DuBrul's first outing brought some of his own style to Bell and his cast of characters, as well as including a neat tie-in to Cussler's own Raise the Titanic! in his mainstay Dirk Pitt series. The Saboteurs is another strong entry and sets a high bar for the other co-authors to reach as they may continue their respective series following Cussler's death in February 2020.

Bell's Van Dorn Agency sends him to meet with a United States Senator, and almost immediately after they sit down together assassins target the official. Bell manages to save his life and eliminate the attackers, but the mystery of who sent them remains. A potential tie to terrorists trying to thwart the largely finished Panama Canal crops up and Bell takes himself to the Canal Zone to learn more. Learning more, of course, will put him squarely in the sights of the shadowy forces apparently trying to stop or at least slow down the Canal's completion. Usually able to draw on substantial Van Dorn resources, Bell is mostly alone in the Zone and nearby Panama itself and realizes he doesn't really know who he can trust.

DuBrul's authorial voice has usually tended towards the he-man butt-kicker style but without the excesses that can make the genre a self-parody. His own heroes frequently had to think their way through problems -- which matches well with the detective dimension of Bell's character. All of the answers seem to be right in front of him, but they lack coherence and DuBrul does a good job of showing how this aspect of the matter more than any other frustrates Bell in his efforts.

The early 20th-century setting puts different borders around his story than he may have been used to, but that also seems to challenge him to work harder to tighten and properly match the narrative to its world. And he can still put out a chase scene like few others -- DuBrul's Philip Mercer character once had a car chase through a gigantic automobile carrier ship as it traversed the Panama Canal, and Bell has a similarly taut race after a saboteur, through the excavations and unfinished pipelines of that same Canal as it's being built.

A later-narrative angle with Bell's wife Marion feels a little too contrived and winds up not really carrying the weight it should -- some more cooking might have made it a better fit and moved this Isaac Bell adventure across the line into five-star territory. As it stands, though, it's the best of the Bell series and a reason to cross one's reading fingers that DuBrul continues to follow along with the Van Dorn Agency's top operative.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Freedom Rules, Commies Drool

The Hong Kong Police prevented citizens from gathering at Victoria Park to commemorate the hundreds of lives lost when the ruling Chinese Communist Party cracked down on protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

So people held their vigil outside the park instead.

Can't do it with tanks, can't do it with cops...you'd think they might try just letting people do and say what they want for a change and see if it helps them suck less.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Too Good to Check?

Twitter is a sewer, but every now and again someone uses it for good and not for evil. This account is probably not really a Twitter feed from Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, but since we're talking about the Mossad you never know.

In any event, whoever does run the feed had perhaps the best response to the recent explosion, fire and sinking of an Iranian Navy warship.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Spotting the Fibber

This article by Jessieca Siegel at Knowable Magazine highlights that most of the reasons people think they can generally spot someone telling a lie are probably not nearly as accurate as they think they are.

Some conventional wisdom holds that a calm person is clearly lying, while other holds that a person showing extra emotion is obviously not telling a true story. In fact, psychologists found only a weak relationship between two supposed "tells" -- fidgeting and a higher pitch to the voice -- and actual lying.

So work began on some more reliable techniques, some of which may have already occurred to people as just common sense. In an interrogation, for example, withheld knowledge and silence on the part of the questioner can lead to a deceptive person to keep talking in order to fill the silence. Eventually, they may say something which the questioner knows is untrue. Although my interactions with people requesting help from our church or multi-church helping group are not technically interrogations, my experience matches this. The more elaborate the story, the more likely it is to be utter horse crap. No, person trying to scam for a gas voucher, you do not have to drive to another town to get a prescription for your sister's sick kid and all you need is $5 more to fill your tank because someone's already given you $10 and your sister's car broke down just yesterday and you know, for $20 she could probably get her husband to buy the fanbelt the car needs. The only truth in what you have said is that you want a gas voucher, and everything else is a lie. Moreover, it is a stupid lie and one that would require me to be stupid to believe.

That example's an exaggeration, but I did once have someone asking for a filled tank in a 1990s-era pickup because they had to "go to North Dakota to get the kids." The person asking couldn't produce a driver's license, meaning I didn't have to ask, "Well, what are you going to do when you run out of gas in Nebraska, because that's as far as that truck is likely to get on a full tank?" and hear yet more crap.

Personally, I have found that reasonably good indicators of statements which are lies or at the very least untrue are these:

1. The statement is made by someone whose name is preceded by letters such as "Rep.," "Sen.," or "Pres."

2. The statement is made by someone whose paychecks bear the name of a branch of a federal, state, county or local government.

3. The statement is found on Twitter.

Unfortunately other supposedly universal signs, such as rapidly lengthening noses or spontaneously combusting trousers, did not even appear to occur during the studied experiments no matter how big a whopper was being laid down.